Friday, November 1, 2013

Confidence-destroying measures

An interview with a Palestinian in the Israeli media:.

Even though the Palestinian speaks impeccable Hebrew, interviewer and interviewee seem to speak two different languages.

It was this week that Esti Perez of the noon news bulletin of Kol Yisrael (the Voice of Israel) spoke with Ashraf Al-Ajami, the PA's former Minister of Prisoner Affairs.. The following is from my notes taken:

Perez: We have released despicable murderers from prison, and as you know this caused a lot of debate among us. It is disturbing to many Israelis to see that among you these murderers are received with great enthusiasm and celebration. This is causing doubts about your wish for peace,

Al-Ajami: These are people who have been in your prisons very many years. They have been imprisoned even before the Oslo Agreement. Their families were missing them and dreamt of seeing them back home. On many previous occasions the Palestinian Authority asked for their release and Israel each time refused. Now, that after all the years they go free, then it's true, there is happiness.

Perez: But these are murderers who murdered civilians!

Al-Ajami: Very many people were killed among you as well as among us. I must say that the number of Palestinians that were killed, the women and children who were killed, is much bigger than the number of Israelis who were killed. Many times more. Especially when your airplanes went to bomb Gaza.

Perez: That is something else! That is war! We are sorry about it, but "à la guerre comme à la guerre". Here we are talking about murderers; about people who attacked with axes and with pitch-forks or blew up an explosive charge!

Al-Ajami: I hope very much that we reach peace, and then nobody will killed anymore, neither Israelis, nor Palestinians.

Perez: We all hope so, Goodbye Mr. Al-Ajami. Thank you very much for speaking in our broadcast. [end broadcast]

To a society which is in conflict and war, it is natural to believe that our boys are the good guys, and theirs are nasty murderers. Israelis have difficulty understanding why Palestinians regard the thousands of  their imprisoned compatriots as national heroes, freedom fighters. "Why are all Palestinian leaders insisting on the release of those terrorists?" And, on the other hand, it is self-evident that the State of Israel is obliged to make superhuman efforts to bring home even a single IDF soldier held prisoner by the enemy. But, "who can make such a comparison? The IDF is the most humane army in the world! How can its soldiers be compared with terrorist murderers?"

In the period immediately after the signing of the Oslo Agreement, the subject of releasing Palestinian prisoners was included under the definition of "Confidence-building Measures", and a special joint committee of Israelis and Palestinians was put in charge of it. It was part of the concept of Conflict Resolution, common in America. It might have even succeeded if a grant gesture would have been made - to open a new page and completely empty the prisons, immediately after the handshake between PM Rabin and PLO Chair Arafat. Especially, because many of the Palestinians, imprisoned at that time, have been sent to their missions at the direct order of those who sat down at the negotiating table with Israel. Such a gesture could have made a strong impression in the Palestinian society where nearly every family has a member who is or was in the Israeli prison.

But,  this was not the road taken after the handshake. The Israeli security services strongly objected and put a veto on the release of "prisoners with blood on their hands" and on anybody considered "still dangerous." The right-wing, including then Knesset Member Netanyahu, made a great outcry about "the release of the murderers."  In what was called The Confidence-Building Committee, there was a very tough and exhausting bargaining about every single name. Prisoner release was carried out very sparingly and quite a few of the prisoners then held, spent another twenty years in prison, until these days. The Palestinians learned  that the occupation was all but over. Across the negotiating table they often met with the same Israelis whom they met before at the Military Governor's Office or the Security Service interrogation room. 

Meanwhile, the whole concept Confidence-Building Measures has gone out of fashion. If there is a release of prisoners it is the naked result of political calculations and power struggles on both sides. Hamas managed to capture an Israeli soldier, called Gilad Shalit, and eventually secured the release of more than a thousand prisoners. Therefore, the prestige of the Hamas leaders rose, while that of President Mahmoud Abbas was hurt. Abbas demanded to get a significant release of prisoners of his own, so as to show that it also can be achieved diplomatically.

Netanyahu, for his part, is facing  Israel's increasing international isolation, for example the recent European move against settlements. In order to deflect international pressure it was important to the prime minister to enter into the negotiations, brokered by Secretary of State Kerry. Therefore, Netanyahu was willing to release 104 prisoners, held even before Oslo, so as to sweeten for the Palestinians the pill of negotiating while settlement construction goes on. In order to prevent Palestinians from escaping from the talks even when they look completely futile and hopeless, Netanyahu took care to divide the prisoner release into four stages, separated by several months from each other. Each of these stages is accompanied by a very loud outcry by the Israeli extreme rights, with very emotional and melodramatic interviews with bereaved families catching the headlines.

In short, the Israeli mass media have  in the past week conveyed to the Israeli public a clear message:  the Palestinians are terrorists and despicable murderers, and the government of Israel decided to release some of them for no reason. The Palestinian public got a message just as clear: with a big effort, several dozen prisoners were extracted from the occupation's clutches, but the army was quick to replace them through nightly raids and detentions, and for good measure the government of Israel the construction of several thousand new housing units in settlements.

In all, an especially effective combination of Confidence-destroying measures - if there was still something to destroy.